By Justina ASISHANA
RUSTY iron works, overgrown bushes and massive presence of an idle crane are the discomforting features of the supposed ultra-modern edifice called the Minna City Centre project.
Located in the centre of Minna, the landmark project, expected to beautify the capital city of Niger State, is now not only a huge source of embarrassment to the state but also an eyesore to visitors since its strategic location makes it impossible for a visitor not to see it.
The centre was a project initiated by the Governor Aliyu Babangida’s administration to serve as the state capital’s hub for shopping and tourism, as it would have had among its features a shopping mall with 5,000 shops, including a branch of the famous Shoprite, a 25-storey tower which would have served as offices, a cultural centre and an amusement park.
Estimated to cost N5 billion at inception, the project was said to have gulped about N800 million before it was stalled – N600 million was said to have been expended on the tower, while about N200 million was spent on the shopping mall.
Investigations revealed that between 2013 and 2015, about N3.935 billion was budgeted for the project. In 2013, the sum of N900 million was budgeted for the project under the title of Minna City Centre, Project Number 064/017, with the construction of tower and dump as some of its features. In 2014, N2 billion was earmarked for the project, while in 2015, N1.035 billion was budgeted for the provision of the city center tower, convention, and information centres.
Before the Minna City Centre project was conceived, the spot had hosted a market and a residential area, popularly known as Abdul Street. But the project remains a pipe dream six years after the market and houses were demolished for its sake and thousands of people and traders lost their homes and shops.
Former residents lament
Erstwhile residents of Abdul Street, which is the current location for the Minna City Centre project, are not happy with the abandoned project. They believe that the state government forced them to give up their homes for no just cause, considering that they were grossly under-compensated for their buildings that were destroyed. Many of the former landlords have since been turned into tenants, while many others were forced to leave the town because of their inability to cope with rent.
While Jide Babatunde and Sons Limited, the estate valuers hired by the state government for the construction of the city centre were valuing the properties, many of the affected residents were said to have complained that their properties were under-valued. The government, however, paid them compensations without addressing their complaints that they were being short-changed. Our correspondent gathered that the government paid 47 of the affected landlords a total sum of N233 million, a sum the landlords described as “unfair and insensitive.”
Mr. Olajide Olasinde, a former chairman of the Abdul Street Landlords Association, said memories are still fresh on his mind and that of the other former landlords.
“I feel bad each time I pass there. After driving people from their homes, nothing has been done to justify their action against us,” he said.
“The so-called shopping mall was not completed. The aim was not achieved, so what was the rationale of driving people out of their ancestral homes?
“We were all surprised when we were called to collect our cheques for the houses. We were surprised because no one came physically to value our houses.
“They told us that if the cheques were not okay, we should take whatever step we needed to take. They gave us papers of allocation to other lands, but up until now, we are yet to receive the certificate of occupancy for the lands.”
Describing the experience as a bitter one, Olajide said that most of the houses were more than 60 years old at the time they were demolished.
He said: “It was a bitter experience. It is like you are living inside a house and you are sent out to live outside. This is because we were living in the heart of the town and suddenly, that was taken from us. The amount paid to everyone could not give anyone a sound structure because we were grossly underpaid.
“My building has been there since the 1960s. The government’s action affected many of the landlords as most of them do not own houses again. And because most of them relied on the rents from their houses, they could not meet up with a lot of things, and at the last count, about 20 of the landlords had left Minna for their villages because of this.”
Erstwhile landlords tell tales of woe
Another landlord, Abdul Ibrahim, who valued his demolished family house at N45 million, said the family was paid a paltry N6.23 million. He said, however, that the government did not drive them out of their houses because a certain time frame was given to them to vacate.
“But when the hoodlums heard that we had been paid, they came to ransack our houses. A lot of us were humiliated as these hoodlums started pulling down the houses bit by bit and looting our houses. We were forced out of our homes before the eviction day and before we could not even get alternative homes for our families. Whether the hoodlums worked in connivance with the government, we don’t know,” he said.
Ibrahim’s house is the oldest and biggest in the area, and the compensation he received has caused serious chaos in the family as there have been conflicts in the sharing formula. The family is still in court till date, he said, as he showed the reporter pictures and documents on the demolished family house.
He said: “I was 65 years old when the house was demolished, and I was born in that house. So, you can imagine how long that house had been in the family. Our house had four buildings, including two duplexes and two buildings with eight rooms and four rooms separately along with some shops.
“The valuers valued the houses wrongly and even the compensation has caused problems in the family as my younger brother took me to court over the sharing formula. Minna. Due to the determination of the government to set up the City Centre project, an alternative market (Kure Ultra-Modern Market) was established for the traders. But unwilling traders who did not have the means to move into the new market were forced out when the structures in the whole area were demolished.
Looking sadly at her ware displayed on a table in front of her house, Madam Shade, who was initially unwilling to speak to the reporter, later agreed to an interview, albeit reluctantly.
She said: “I do not want to talk about it. That incident is not something one should think about. It was a very sad day when we arrived at the market and found that all our shops were gone.
“I had just arrived from market, the Onitsha Market, some days before and all my goods were gone. I could not even locate the area my shop was in the rubble, so my wares were gone.
“Nothing is as devastating as that. From a cloth seller, look at what I am selling now—petty goods. And where are the customers?”
While Madam Shade who sells iced fish seemed to have given up hope, others like Mama Kemi are relentless as she is one of the traders who relocated to the back of the demolished market. She explained that even the government is tired of driving them away from the place and has left them alone.
“How will they drive us when we only come out after the government officials have gone home? They have tried so many times, but unlike other markets, we do not leave our goods here for them to take. So how will they drive us?” she asked.
She said she had not been able to secure a shop in the Kure Ultra-Modern Market because the shops are too expensive.
“Where else will I go? A shop in Kure Market is too expensive and they will not allow you to put your table somewhere to sell what you want to sell. Even if I want a shop now, it will be far inside the market. Who will locate me there?
“I have been selling fish for long. I use it to support my family. Seeing that all the front shops in Kure Market have been taken, will people leave the fish sellers at the front and come inside to buy fish where I am? That is why I did not follow them to the new market when the old market was destroyed.”
Contractors, government agencies play hide-and-seek
Checks our correspondent made at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) revealed that Grand Tower Limited, builders of the city centre, is registered. Why the company did not continue with the project, however, remains a mystery.
Checks made in respect of the estate valuer, Babatunde and Company, however, could not establish if the company was registered with the CAC. Efforts made to reach the consultant, Flopat Global Services Limited, were also not successful as the phone number on the signpost was said not to be valid.
The project has no specific ministry handling it. Checks made by the reporter, including Freedom of Information requests sent out, indicated that no ministry in the state was willing to admit that it oversaw the project. The Ministry of Works, which received the Freedom of Information request for information about the project, said it did not handle or supervise the project.
The ministry, which ordinarily should be the main supervisors of the project, could not give the total sum the project would consume as the Permanent Secretary and Director of Works directed the reporter to the Ministry of Finance to get the details about the project.
Similarly, the Ministry of Finance claimed not to have any knowledge of the project. In its response to the FOI request, the ministry redirected the reporter back to the Ministry of Works, Lands and Housing and the Ministry of Investment. A second FOI request written to the Ministry of Works in August had received no response at the time of filing this report.
On his part, the Commissioner of Commerce and Investment promised to provide the details as soon as he presented a memo to the state governor regarding the project.
He said: “I cannot speak on the project now. I am preparing a memo regarding the whole subject of the Minna City Centre project and need to present it to the governor. After I have made the presentation, I will brief the press.”
The reporter also tried to reach the Niger State Development Company (NSDC), another agency that could have handled the project but was told the Managing Director would not speak to any journalist on the issue, especially with the current sale of one of the malls in the project. The Personal Assistant to the Managing Director who spoke with the reporter said: “We just received a letter from the Ministry of Investment that one of the malls, NSDC Mall, has been sold. We were not informed or have any knowledge of it. If you were in our shoes, will you be happy?
“I don’t think he wants to speak to you now. I told him you were here and he said he will not speak to you.”
Government sells out mall at give-away prices
When the state governor, Abubakar Sani-Bello, resumed office in 2015, he said he had no money to complete the structure, adding that he would rather use such money for other pressing needs faced by the state. He then asked the Commissioner for Commerce and Investment and the management of NSDC to find investors who would be ready to take up the project.
Recently, however, the Niger State Government disclosed that it had sold the NSDC Mall, one of the malls in the Minna City Centre project for N110 million, an amount that is said to be less than half the current market price of the structure.
The structure is the only construction in the project that has reached about 89 per cent completion and has been listed by the present administration as a non-priority project and therefore abandoned. The structure is erected on a land area covering 4,300 square metres, and at the time that work stopped on the project in 2015, the Niger State Government was reported to have sunk well over N247 million into it.
The state government, through the Commissioner for Commerce, Cooperatives and Investment, Mudi Mohammed, who briefed newsmen in August, revealed that the mall had been sold to Jaiz Bank Plc for N110 million, a sum considered as giveaway even by the most conservative in estimates and cost evaluations.
The commissioner said the state government had earlier advertised the uncompleted shopping mall for rentals for which more than 106 persons purchased application forms at N5,000 each before the state government opted to sell the shopping centre outright.
Although no reason was given for the state government’s decision to sell the complex and at such rock bottom price, the commissioner attributed the state government’s action to lack of interest from the public and the current economic situation in the country. He said the government decided to sell it to Jaiz Bank Plc, but he did not say whether there were other bidders for the complex. He also did not say if there was any public offer through bids process for the magnificent shopping centre.
The commissioner said the state government had given the new owner of the shopping centre guidelines which include the immediate takeover of the structure, employment of indigenes of Niger State and beautification of the centre.
Efforts made to get details of government’s plans for the other projects in the City Centre did not succeed as the commissioner was repeatedly said not to be in the office each time the reporter visited, and no other official of the ministry was ready to speak on the project.
This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR).